- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

RICHMOND — Northern Virginia figures prominently in state budget negotiations that got under way this weekend, with a $200 million gap between the House and Senate transportation spending proposals for the region at the center of the debate.

Analysis of the two plans — which have deep philosophical differences on tax increases for road and transit improvements — was released as legislative wrangling began in earnest during this final week of the General Assembly session.

“It’s not one of the areas of greatest need; it is the area of greatest need,” said Sen. Jeannemarie A. Devolites Davis, Fairfax County Republican. “We’re the economic engine in this state, and we hear too many times from our business community members that if we don’t do something about the traffic, it inhibits their ability to do business.”

The Senate proposal, which increases taxes and fees, raises $470 million over two years in new money for projects to ease gridlock in Northern Virginia.

The House plan, which relies on surplus dollars, debt and higher fines for chronically bad drivers, would raise $268 million for Northern Virginia, according to a Senate Finance Committee analysis of Virginia Department of Transportation data.

The House and Senate plans also have a $104 million spending difference for Hampton Roads, arguably as congested as the D.C. suburbs.

The debate over transportation spending comes two years after the Republican-controlled legislature raised taxes by $1.38 billion and as the state has a multibillion surplus.

“Nobody likes to raise taxes … [but] doing nothing is the higher cost,” said Sen. Marty E. Williams, Newport News Republican and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The House’s two-year budget includes $888 million for transportation spread statewide, with about 80 percent of the money going to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

The Senate budget has $1.9 billion over two years for transportation, including more money for maintenance of the state’s rural roads.

Eleven powerful lawmakers are tasked with reaching a compromise on transportation and a two-year spending plan for state services before the scheduled adjournment Saturday.

“Ten days is an eternity in legislative time,” House Speaker William J. Howell told The Washington Times as negotiations on the final spending blueprint began Thursday.

Few legislators think they will return to work or take vacations anytime before April.

The mood among lawmakers — most of whom spent 115 days working through what should have been a 60-day session during the budget fight of 2004 — is that it’s time to settle in for a long wait.

Still, “optimistic” was the key phrase echoed by the negotiators and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat.

Mr. Kaine has said he is willing to call lawmakers back into a special session if they fail to compromise. His predecessor, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, did it two years ago before the legislature ultimately agreed on the $1.38 billion tax increase.

“I want to keep this discussion going,” Mr. Kaine said.

Mr. Howell, Stafford County Republican, said he doesn’t think there is a transportation “crisis,” and that a short break might help build support on the anti-tax side.

“If the people go back home and listen to the people they were elected to represent, there might not be such an appetite for tax increases,” he said.

Many of the dynamics that factored into the 2004 battle remain in place, including most of the same budget negotiators meeting behind closed doors.

The leaders of each team are House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. and Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, both Republicans who have hammered out budget details for decades.

Also negotiating for the House are Delegates Leo C. Wardrup, Lacey E. Putney, Phillip A. Hamilton, M. Kirkland Cox and Johnny S. Joannou. All are Republicans except Mr. Putney, who is an independent, and Mr. Joannou, who is a Democrat. All are anti-tax.

From the Senate are Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch and Sens. William C. Wampler Jr., Charles J. Colgan Sr. and R. Edward Houck.

Mr. Stosch and Mr. Wampler are Republicans. Mr. Houck, who was not a budget negotiator in 2004, and Mr. Colgan are Democrats.

All the senators voted for the Senate transportation tax plan.

Mr. Chichester is willing to wait it out, even if it means canceling a trip to Florida for Major League Baseball spring training.

“We are optimistic we will fulfill our obligation in due course,” he said.

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